The State of Street Photography

Street photography has a long and storied history, sitting as it does at the intersection of journalism and art. My interest was drawn to it by the figure that has inspired many budding street shooters, Henri Cartier-Bresson. Probably the most broadly influential street photographer in the medium's history, Cartier-Bresson was an advocate of stealth and discretion. He would famously use only small Leica cameras painted black to avoid drawing attention to himself.
Other street photographers use different methods and equipment but the intention usually remained constant: to discretely find and catch people off-guard, wherein the oft-discussed 'decisive moment' makes itself known.


The ethical considerations of the medium are one of its most controversial aspects.
Defenders of the form often fall into arguing that people have no right to expectation of privacy in a public place, and that street photography is legal. The fault with this reasoning is that just because something is legal doesn't make it particularly ethical. As my friend Phoebe put it: “Legality is pretty much the minimum of human behaviour. That's right at the baseline.” No-one wants to feel harrassed or as though a shifty-looking stranger is surveilling them on the street. In fact, a year or two ago I stumbled upon a photographer sharing his street work on Facebook, all seemingly distant photos taken voyeuristically from a car with a cheap camera. Needless to say, the response to the anonymous photographer's attempt to be creative was not positive.

With the explosion of online photo-sharing and the creeping growth of sites encouraging people to photograph strangers to shame them for their behaviour (remember Women Who Eat On Tubes?) or to objectify and demean them, public sentiment against street photography seems to be slipping even further into the negative. Although voyeurism and shaming are nothing to do with street photography itself, benign street photographers have by-and-large been embarrassingly unsuccessful in preventing the predators from claiming the justification of 'art' for themselves.

I used to be a voracious street photographer. I'd roam around town for hours trying to find something interesting happening, eagerly hunting down that decisive moment. When I got the chance to go to New York for a day a few years ago I dove in head-first and spent the day hunting around for things to photograph. In such a rich ground it felt like there was something happening everywhere I looked. Unfortunately it feels as though those days have slipped into the past. More and more when I'm out on the street with a camera, for each shot I manage to take I can feel myself 'miss' ten others. The growing anxiety at potentially causing upset, potentially being thought a creep or pervert causes me to hesitate, and in that hesitation the opportunity passes by. I've lost my nerve, and I'm not sure I'll ever get it back.